Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1323, (8 - 14 December 2016)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1323, (8 - 14 December 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The real story of 9/11

In the first of a series of articles, Wagih Makky explains the real story of the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington

Al-Ahram Weekly

The annals of American history mention that the central issue in the 1960 presidential election was the presumed missile gap in favour of the former Soviet Union. The cornerstone of the strategic defence of the United States ever since has been the interception of nuclear warhead-carrying ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles).  

ICBMs carrying multiple thermonuclear warheads launched against the United States from hidden silos anywhere in the world would require fewer than 30 to 40 minutes to obliterate any sign of life in the United States. That is the time between launching and hitting the ground. Successfully intercepting an ICBM over the continental United States is meaningless because of the fallout. An ICBM has to be detected as early as possible and then intercepted a safe distance away from American airspace. This very much reduces the available time for carrying out the entire process of protecting the United States against any doomsday attack to no more than 15 to 20 minutes.  

In the 1980s the then US president Ronald Reagan launched the ill-conceived and prohibitively expensive Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) aimed at rendering the United States immune to any surprise nuclear attack. Even before launching the SDI programme, billions upon billions of dollars were spent over the years to research, develop, manufacture and deploy (mostly in space via satellites) infrared detection systems to identify the plume caused by the unannounced launching of an ICBM. Generations of scientists and engineers dedicated their careers to this process. The very essence of the strategic defence effort of the United States is to add just a couple of minutes to the early warning process.

The 21st century began with the calamitous events of September 11, 2001. The American ego was shattered. Instead of treating the incident as what it really was – an attempt by a group of young disgruntled idealists who wanted to retaliate against what they perceived as American crimes – the western world in tandem with America’s militaristic elite could not or would not find an explanation except to focus on the assumption that the perpetrators were all Muslims.  

Before 1776, the New World contained desperate religious communities with nothing binding them together. In order to establish their new republic, the Founding Fathers of the United States defined it not by what it would stand for but rather by what it opposed, which at the time was Old World Europe.

With independence, the republic became the only glue holding these desperate groupings together, and ever since the US has needed an enemy for self-assurance.

 Even two centuries later, expressions like “American Exceptionalism” and the “End of History” find their way into the political discourse in the US. The fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s ushered in a sense of euphoria tinged with confusion due to the disappearance of the one-time ally turned into defining enemy after the Second World War.  

Thanks to the events of 9/11, at long last America (and the West in general) found its long sought-after enemy. Western civilisation was again under attack by “savage” Muslims.  A modern day “crusade” was called for, as so eloquently put by the born-again Christian and mediocre president of the United States at the time, George W. Bush. To his like-minded westerners, the answer to his rallying question of “why do they hate us so much?” could be found in the profound envy Muslims supposedly harboured against the moral, social, political and technological achievements of the West.

According to this simplistic thesis, unable to have what the West had, Muslims could only express their frustration and anger in aggression against the symbols of American and western prosperity and hegemony. The West wanted a clash with Islam. Over a very short period of time, this self-fulfilling wish was what transpired. The result was a “war on terrorism” that used the whole world as a stage for what now seems to be an open-ended and unwinnable conflict that worsens day by day

The facts concerning the fateful events of 9/11 are: (a) four civilian wide-body airplanes were hijacked very shortly after taking off from airports in the north-east of the US; (b) two of these planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre (WTC) in New York City; (c) the third plane crashed into the Pentagon in Northern Virginia; (d) the fourth plane was shot down in rural Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh (after the then US secretary of defence personally announced that this plane had been shot downed by an Air Force fighter plane, the official US government account changed to attributing the crash to a valiant struggle between passengers and hijackers).

Moreover, (e) the time interval between the first plane crashing into the WTC and the fourth being intercepted / smashing into the ground is close to over an entire hour; (f) the US Federal authorities’ immediate reaction was to assume that the integrity of the American civil aviation system was under assault. National civilian air traffic control facilities were evacuated and closed down until further notice. The entire American airspace was closed and air travel was banned until further notice for the very first time.

In addition, (g) official announcements regarding the details of what had happened then started trickling down and a clear position of linking the events to Islamic terrorism took shape; (h) the raid on these highly visible American symbols was the first in history to take place on American soil. Not even the Pearl Harbour catastrophe in 1941 could compare to this; (i) these brazen acts of terrorism struck a raw nerve in the public, and extreme anger and fear descended on the United States from coast to coast; and (j) the political survival of an administration that filled the air with loud declarations and posturing about American might and its mission demanded some response commensurate with the strikes.

Finding an enemy: To deter any thought of aggression against it, the United States had to make a very public display of its might. An enemy had to be punished. Scholarship was summarily put into service to come up with plausible justifications to present to the public in preparation for what was to come.  
Historical animosities to the West were searched for, and at every turn Islam loomed large. Western pseudo-intellectuals, the likes of academics Bernard Lewis, Richard Pipes and their ilk, went into overdrive to analyse the episode and produced meaningless expressions like “jihadists,” “Islamists,” “suicide bombers,” and “extremist versus moderate Islam,” etc.

The insignificant group that allegedly carried out the deeds became an international Islamic terrorist group perpetrating an insidious conspiracy against western civilisation. New terms and expressions were coined and insistently repeated over and over again. The western public subscribed without question to every detail it was fed. Hatred coupled with ignorance of Islam perfected the charade. The world of militant Islam was designated as the new arch-enemy, eventually meaning all things Muslim.

The US-led invasions of Afghanistan and shortly afterwards Iraq were precipitated, and there was little difficulty in getting the public to rally to the cause.

In spite of worldwide protests, the American public was solidly behind the US administration in showing American resolve. Soon enough, both invasions proved futile, and the United States became entangled in quagmires. The US public then changed its stand, the general mood of the country soured, and the tide turned against the two wars based on financial grounds and the very limited tangible return on what had been promised.

It was thought that restoring the American image of invincibility would be “a walk in the park”. However, things did not go America’s way. The inescapable irony is that thanks to American missteps in the aftermath of 9/11, international terrorism has increased many times over. Additionally, the miserable American military performance in Afghanistan and Iraq has decimated America’s aura of invincibility. Enemies are currently more emboldened to challenge the United States than ever.

Thanks to America’s mishandling of the situation and its aftermath, people across the globe at present gloomily speak of the world “before” and “after” 9/11. It was not too long before other societies obtained their “before and after” expressions describing violent acts of every kind as terrorism mushroomed, sweeping the entire globe. This is the legacy of the events of the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

Sadly, Europe is now repeating America’s ill-advised course of reactions to 9/11 to the letter. No one seems to have figured out that overwhelming force does not deter fanatics; it doesn’t even scare them. They actually enjoy showing westerners as brutes who kill Muslims by the thousands and destroy their towns and cities. Money cannot buy a more effective technique for advertising and recruitment. The average westerner is perplexed at the vehemence of Muslim reactions to what they consider unimportant issues. Ominously, Muslims the world over who would never have contemplated endorsing acts of terrorism or violence empathise less and less with western victims.

Violent or not, Muslims feel they are treated as dupes by the West simply because they behave decently, and this instinctively enrages them. Therefore, what can legitimately be called acts of terrorism are currently viewed by more and more Muslims as deserved punishments for the West. As the West gets more violent and crude in its responses, the situation deteriorates, moving closer and closer towards the abyss.  

A tiny group: Fanatical dedication to Islam was an assumption that was impossible to prove about the tiny group that carried out the outrageous deeds on 9/11, as the perpetrators’ thoroughly investigated backgrounds exposed (ironically, the same proved true about those later perpetrating similar acts of terrorism in London, Cairo, Madrid, Bangkok, Paris, Tunis, Bamako, San Bernardino, Brussels and several other places).  

This was promptly overlooked, and Islam itself came under vilification as a “violent and backward” culture. The denigration efforts were not in the least bit subtle. Needing no prodding, Europeans joined the cavalcade, and the political circus took on an ugly façade. Insulting Islam and Muslims became a free-for-all sport. Western governments embarked on a nefarious effort of infiltrating and spying on peaceful Muslim communities.

It is curious that the few lonely voices that raised concerns about the extent of the vocal disparagement of Islam and the physical abuse of individual and communal Muslims did so only out of fears of antagonising the world Muslim community to the point of creating a backlash. The battle became one of the “civilised” West against the “uncivilised” Muslims.  Although cynical political elites used Islam as a convenient bogeyman for their own malicious ends, they probably unwittingly awakened the historic bigotry of the western masses that lay just below the surface.

Currently the West vehemently pressures the rulers of Muslim societies to tamper with the substance of Islamic ideals. The underlying premise is that Muslims should follow western patterns of the “Enlightenment,” adopting science and in the process getting rid of religion altogether in order to come out of their backwardness and become just like westerners. Then they will lose any impetus to envy them. The post-Second World War Japanese transformation and the South Korean economic miracle should suffice to convince Muslims of the validity of these assumptions. Even post-Mao China has progressed rapidly by adopting western ideas, albeit while still remaining officially Communist. There are plenty of examples to learn from. But this is a foolhardy bet, and a backlash is inevitable, which is what the world is suffering from at the present time.

While well-versed persons dismiss these attempts as laughable, the least-educated among the masses take umbrage and resort to violence. Authoritative Muslim scholars who go along with appeasing the West lose credibility one by one, and the field becomes wide open to fanatics. Make no mistake: Islam will be defended against any perceived affront no matter what, if not by qualified scholars then by ignorant fanatics.

There are many questions about the sequence of events described above on 9/11 that were never asked. The first set has to do with the number of hijacked planes, the location of the airports they originated from, the ease with which they were taken over and most importantly the effortlessness the assailants had in bringing their weapons on board. The official stance on these issues was simply that the hijackers formed a tightly knit group of terrorists conspiring and planning for a long period to hijack these planes using box cutters. Simply put, the United States faced a huge international conspiracy.

On the other hand, the US government could not establish that the alleged conspirators knew each other or that they had ever met, let alone held sessions to plan and train to carry out the assaults. The only established thing they had in common was that they were all Muslims, as is obvious from the names on the flights’ passenger lists. It is clear that every Muslim on board was assumed to belong to the hijackers. However, the north-east of the US has large Muslim communities, and it should not be surprising if some passengers on the planes were Muslims.

Due to the conflagration caused by the fuel, nothing remained of the bodies or even the planes’ fuselages, not to mention the weapons used, after the attacks. It is impossible to figure out where the assertion came from that the weapons used in the hijacking were box cutters. It seems that box cutters were assigned the role of weapons of choice because they were allowed items on planes at the time. That way, no one would be at fault if terrorists could get on board carrying them as opposed to carrying guns or knives, for example. The security system was thus cleared of any dereliction of duty.

Other puzzles: Another puzzle stems from the fact that the hijackers’ passports were found in abandoned rental cars. Why would someone bent on killing make sure to bring along a document identifying himself and, additionally, leave it in a parked car he did not own? On the other hand, this makes the official tale more coherent and believable by the public.  Officialdom went to great lengths to absolve itself.

A detached observer can see, however, that the hijackers were amateurish individuals who went for four operations instead of one because they were not sure of success given the high level of security counter-measures at the airports. The airports in question were selected based on their proximity to high-visibility targets. Rather than subscribing to the officially adopted international conspiracy explanation, one can easily see that the whole episode demonstrated the wretched performance of the security measures at US airports.

The most important observation and the one that has never been addressed is that it took the US national strategic air defence system over an hour (that is the elapsed time between the first hijacking and the interception of the fourth plane near Pittsburgh) to respond. The unavoidable implication here is that a potential strategic enemy armed with nuclear weapons could have wiped out all signs of life in the United States while its seemingly inadequate and prohibitively costly defence system was manned by military personnel sleeping on the job.

The most logical conclusion of this analysis is that on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, American airspace was massively violated for over an hour with no response whatsoever from any of the organs of the strategic defence system. The collapse was dismal. A failure of that magnitude would encourage enemies of the United States to challenge its hegemony not only in the world but maybe also even on American soil. Unreasonably harsh measures had to be taken to intimidate any potential enemy and to put the world on notice that the United States’ responses would be limitless.

A display of America’s military prowess had to be organised immediately, with or without help from the rest of the world. The failure of the United States strategic air defence system to respond to the violation of heavily protected North American air space by these airplanes is the real story of 9/11.


The writer is an international consultant and former member of the US Transportation Security Administration. This article is adapted from his book Islam and the West – Why Do They Hate Us So Much?

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